Nuthin’ But The Blues
We picked some of our favorite Blues documentaries and films for your viewing pleasure
There are several documentaries about Aretha Franklin, from Queen of Soul to the Aretha Franklin Story, but this film is unique in presenting live footage that was created while Aretha was recording her album, Amazing Grace.
Shot under the direction of the great Sidney Pollack, it was not released in 1972 as scheduled due to technical difficulties in synchronizing sound to film.
Re-released after Miss Franklin’s death, it can be seen on Amazon.
Before Elvis sang “Hound Dog” and Janis Joplin belted out “Ball & Chain”, Willie Mae Thornton had turned them into hits. In fact, she wrote Ball & Chain.
During her career, Thornton was nominated for the Blues Music Awards six times. In 1984, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. In addition to “Ball ‘n’ Chain” and “They Call Me Big Mama,” Thornton wrote twenty other blues songs. Her “Ball ‘n’ Chain” is included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
You can watch a segment of Big Mama! on Vimeo.
Blues America focuses on the Great Migration north to Chicago and the desegregation of Blues music that followed. Legends such as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf are showcased.
Featuring Marshall Chess, his memories of Chess Records and the iconic artists who recorded there. Performers featured include Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and more.
Bonnie Blue: James Cotton’s Life in the Blues is a feature documentary with an extraordinary list of musicians participating in intimate concert and original interview settings exclusively for this film.
Cotton’s life truly portrays Americas history through music from tours with Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield and sessions with the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Steve Miller, B.B. King and many more. This new film captures America’s soul as the blues becomes interpreted in jazz, big band, rock and roll, punk, hip-hop and rap.
Born in Chicago is the story of first-generation blues performers who moved from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago, and the middle-class white kids who were introduced to their music in the 1960’s. Flocking to Chicago’s South Side music clubs, they strove to learn the blues from the original masters.
The film is packed with personal anecdotes, archival footage, and insightful interviews, including those with Michael Bloomfield, Buddy Guy, Keith Richards, Nick Gravenites, Elvin Bishop, Harvey Mandel, Corkey Seigel, Eric Burdon, Marshall Chess, and Barry Goldberg.
Currently available on Amazon/UK
For over 120 years, Chicago’s Maxwell Street served immigrants and poor people as an open air market. Dubbed the “Ellis Island of the Midwest”, it was also the known as “New Orleans of the north”, the birthplace of modern blues. Maxwell Street was home to blues legends like Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and Little Walter.
Created by veteran documentary filmmaker, Phil Ranstrom, this film is considered the definitive work about Maxwell Street in any medium and features interviews with famous Chicagoans and blues artists such as Stud Terkel, Bo Diddley, Florence Scala, Nate Duncan, Uncle Johnny Williams, Jimmy Lee Robinson, Eddie Burks and more.
Available on Amazon
Filmed in 1972, Harley Cokliss’s Chicago Blues is a remarkable film; remarkable in that it was not just a competent documentary but a film crafted with care by professionals with a love and understanding of Blues and a respect for its history and artists.
Featured music and artists faithfully reflect the Chicago Blues scene of the late ’60s. Amateurs to world famous stars, music created in houses or small bars, and traditional to modern styles are showcased.
Howlin’ Wolf, aka Chester Burnett, came out of the deep south from the fields of Mississippi. His religious mother was convinced that Blues was “the devil’s music” and threw him out of the house for playing it.
Although Howlin’ Wolf contended with racism and hardship, he created his own original, vibrant brand of Blues, writing iconic songs that are still being covered today.
Despite not being a household name today, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Her flamboyance, skill, and showmanship on the electric guitar played a vital role in the birth of Rock & Roll.
Featuring archival performances and new interviews with fellow musicians, producers, friends, and colleagues, this film tells the story of a talented and determined woman who channeled gospel music into Rock & Roll and influenced artists like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
Part of a highly regarded, albeit controversial, documentary that was primarily directed by white filmmakers and is no longer available for viewing except on YouTube.
ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads
A look at the short, mysterious life of blues legend, Robert Johnson, who was said to have made a deal with the Devil at a crossroads in rural Mississippi.
Ruth Brown Interview with Charlie Rose
Ruth Alston Brown was a best- selling American singer-songwriter and actress, sometimes known as the “Queen of R&B”. She was noted for bringing a pop music style to R&B music in a series of hit songs for Atlantic Records in the 1950s, such as “So Long”, “Teardrops from My Eyes” and ” He Treats Your Daughter Mean”.
In this 1993 interview with Charlie Rose, Ruth recalls highlights from her illustrious career.
Guitar icon Buddy Guy reflects on his legacy and passes along the blues lessons he received from legends Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
From Rolling Stone:
‘That moldy-peaches cliché “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” has rarely applied to anyone as much as Buddy Guy. As his former protégé Joe Bonamassa says in The Torch, a new doc about Guy, the now-85-year-old blues guitarist and singer is “the last man standing.” He really is: Guy is one of the few still-breathing blues veterans who can boast that he played behind Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, and wowed Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones when they were all twentysomething Brits learning the genre.’
Classically trained pianist, black power icon and legendary recording artist, Nina Simone lived a life of brutal honesty, musical genius, and tortured melancholy.
Using never-before-heard recordings, rare archival footage and her best-known songs, this is the story of the legendary singer and activist.
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, six Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Documentary for a Nonfiction Special and Outstanding Directing for a Nonfiction Program, winning the former. The film was also awarded a 2015 Peabody Award.
Watch it on Netflix.
Jake Blues reunites with his brother Elwood after being released from prison, but the duo has just days to mobilize their old R&B band and save the Catholic home where they were raised. Worth watching for the legendary artists and classic scenes, which include Maxwell Street.
Not entirely factual but entertaining and informative, nevertheless.
In 1947 Chicago, Polish emigrant and bar owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) hires a blues combo that includes guitarist Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short). Waters’ and Walter’s success leads to Chess’ management of stars Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and others. Inevitably, business and personal lines blur as the turbulent lives of the musicians play out.
Worth watching just for British actor Eamon Williams, who delivers a stellar performance as Howlin’ Wolf.
A biography of Huddie Ledbetter (Roger E. Mosley), this drama follows the life of the highly influential African-American blues singer and guitarist, who was better known as “Leadbelly.”
The trouble-prone musician frequently ended up working on chain gangs, and, when not incarcerated, sometimes traveled around with fellow blues man Blind Lemon Jefferson (Art Evans).
The film shows how Leadbelly dealt with the racism of his era and found some degree of peace in his music. Directed by Gordon Parks.
Gorgeous musical performances enhance this dramatization of the life story and rise to fame of blues great W.C. Handy. Starring Nat “King” Cole, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Eartha Kitt, Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, and Ruby Dee.
Legendary soul musician Ray Charles, is is portrayed by Jamie Foxx in this Oscar-winning biopic. When he loses his sight at the age of nine, his hardworking mother (Sharon Warren) urges him not to feel sorry for himself and inspires him to succeed.
Ray rises through the ranks of the Seattle jazz scene, while struggling with drug addiction and infidelity when on the road.
Supported by his wife (Kerry Washington), Ray Charles redefines soul music and inspires a generation.